The Creative Problem With Nostalgia


In 1977, a fairytale about space knights and a galactic empire snuck into movie theaters across the country and changed the world. In 1993, a revolutionary spectacle about dinosaurs run amok created by an irresponsible scientist topped both the domestic and worldwide charts. But today, rather than thriving on the unique creative force of the current moment, it seems that what crowds flock to is the next reboot, revival or 20-years-too-late sequel.

Whether it is the electrifying adventure of Jurassic Park, the cosy whimsy of Mary Poppins or the wide-eyed wonder of Star Wars, the feelings evoked by the originals are being distilled and repackaged under similar names...only something doesn't feel quite right.

We live in an age of nostalgia, where the new and unique struggles while the referential shoots to the top of the charts. But the problem is that nostalgic storytelling, just like nostalgic living, very rarely feels like anything more than a reproduction or rejection of the original. These products may make loads of cash, and sometimes even be high quality, but nine times out of ten, even initial goodwill begins to fade leaving emptiness in its wake. 

Instead of living in the now and creating something worth looking back on, our eyes are fixed unblinkingly on the rearview.

Though I guess it should come as no surprise that nostalgia is the order of the day, when the hatred, pain and despair of others have a far greater platform than ever before, but what we're finding is that, not only does nostalgic filmmaking fail to scratch that itch, it's actually starting to exacerbate the issue. 

Take a look at the reaction to Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. While The Force Awakens was a crowd pleaser, a popular trend quickly emerged of pointing out all the ways in which it was a retread of the original trilogy. Meanwhile The Last Jedi was almost immediately lambasted by an angry segment of the fanbase for being too different, throwing out the old and spitting in the face of fans. One was too similar, while the other was too different. Jurassic World didn't explore the more profound messages of the original and just became a summer popcorn blockbuster, they said, and Ghostbusters (2016) committed the unforgivable sin of featuring, dear Lord help us...women. 

A few nostalgia flicks, such as It and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, soar to box office and critical acclaim, but it seems that the combination for a successful reboot is a recognition of the property without a rabid fanbase.

The reason many of these throwback films get ripped to shreds is that the fans of the original films have spent hours upon weeks upon years, often since their early childhood, imagining where the story should go next. And when the reboot of their beloved franchise takes a turn contrary to what was laid out on the playground, tempers flare to an alarming degree. #NotMyStarWars

Here's the deal: no movie, no matter how great, from a franchise with a rabid fanbase that lives and dies by their fandom will ever satisfy the entirety of that fanbase. 

Fans want to be surprised, but not like that. They want to be introduced to new characters, but, ew, not those. They want it to feel like the original, but not that much! UGH, YOU'RE DOING IT ALL WRONG! Rather than telling a story, the creators are pulled this way and that by the whims of the fans, trying to guess what will get them to fill theaters on opening night, and what was once art becomes product.

In the age of "whoever shouts loudest is the rightest" and "anyone who disagrees with me is wrong and also stupid and probably Satan" it turns a once-joyful fanbase into a toxic cesspool. Rather than just enjoying a film for what it is, "fans" lie in wait to pick nits. That's not to say that some of the complaints aren't warranted, but the intense propensity for hatred and the subsequent desire to burn the entire franchise to the ground unless it becomes exactly what they wanted it to be, is unsettling. The desire to ruin the fun of those who did enjoy the movie, and to ruin the lives of those who created it, is disgusting. 

Seeing a movie, watching a show or reading a book is all about buckling in for the roller coaster ride the creators have built. It may come as news to some, but violently critiquing every loop, twist and turn just ruins the fun and destroys the magic. 

Nostalgic storytelling builds a collective culture of homesickness. We can enjoy the stories that throwback to what we loved when we were young, but expecting them to be exactly the same will only make us miserable. Nothing brand new can compete in our hearts with something we've loved since before we can remember. We can't return to 1977. Nothing can take us back to 1993. We will never be eight years old ever again. But if we chill the heck out and put things in perspective, these nostalgic tales can be a brief delight, whether they are perfect or not. Believe it or not, things don't have to be perfect to be a good time.

But even more, if we lift up creators who have set out to tell new, inspiring stories, a story from 2018 might just inspire the same kind of love in 30 years that we now feel for the first time a space farmer blew up a Death Star.